Behind the picture-postcard beauty lies a tale of history, geology – and whisky-making.
The familiar flight can fill you with excitement, or a feeling of ‘oh no, not again’. Thankfully, the latter never occurs whenever I head to Aberdeen, though this time the sense of anticipation was different. It could have been partly because, in its infinite wisdom, easyjet has decided that there should only now be two flights a day from Gatwick, morning and evening. With the former leaving at 06.20, it means a 03.15 wakeup.
I reckon that’s what put my brain in a funny place. Maybe still half asleep (or awake, it was hard to tell) I went into a fugue-like state where I seemed to be simultaneously experiencing all the previous versions of the same flight, each of the hopes and thoughts, the smells and feelings of all of the trips for this particular venture – a training course which I’ve taught on for the past 15 (I think) years.
I’ve seen the road to Ballater in all seasons: the slow creep of blue-skied springs leading to the greens of spring; long, low-lit umber and golden autumns, the white and grey of snowed-in winter; of the wind-twisted coils of ancient pines, and darting red squirrels, pathways of crow feathers, a river at peace or in spate; and at road-end a cupboard filled with rarities and good company.
Whisky landscape: Ballater in the springtime from the River Dee (Photo: Nigel Corby)
Returning is always good. Every time we try a whisky it is for the first time. It is reassuring and simultaneously challenging, there is comfort in the familiar and a chance to reassess the beliefs of the past and bring new thoughts forward for discussion. The aims of the course – a deep-dive into malt’s intricacies in order to enthuse people and give them new ways to talk about it – remain the same, but the delivery alters.
Now there’s less talk about the (once) bright new world of the whisky dinner, and more about occasion and how to drink. It’s not odd today to discuss cocktails, while everyone has heard about umami. In general, the folk on the course seem more comfortable with the idea of whisky. Engaged is one way of putting it. The same; but different. A return, but also a progression.
Those changes also come through in where we drink. The old watering holes (hole being the operative word) of Speyside’s The Pole, the Allargue Arms on the Lecht, both gone, Blairgowrie’s Stormont Arms no longer en route. As whisky changes, so Scotland does, albeit slowly. New layers are being laid down.
That said, there are still too many hotels and bars who believe that ‘Highland hospitality’ means the smell of damp tweed and even wetter dogs, where the dust of ages settles on top of the breaded haddock and age-toughened venison, and where ‘an extensive selection of whiskies’ means five lonely bottles on the back bar and a clueless bartender who hasn’t been trained to realise that many of the tourists who are arriving in increasing numbers are there to, er, taste whisky.
Inverness was like that until relatively recently. No longer, thanks to The Malt Room. A nook which at first glance looks Japanese in its stripped-back decor, and groaning shelves. Japanese restraint in terms of service is not evident however, which is A Good Thing. That wouldn’t be an ideal fit for Inversneckie. This is a bar where whisky is enthused over, a place for opinions and bottles (or drams) on the table being talked over. If you’re heading north I urge you to go, or to Drumnadrochit’s Fiddlers, or Rothes’ Station Hotel, or the embarrassment of riches in Craigellachie, or Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler. The fact that as I write I’m thinking, ‘and Skye’s Eilean Iarmain, or Sligachan, or Portree’s Merchant…’ shows how things have shifted.
The way whisky has been served and talked about has shifted almost imperceptibly in recent years. One day it was bartenders saying, ‘Whisky? Haven’t a clue, pal, I drink vodka’, to, ‘have you tried this? It’s amazing.’
This in some ways is also a return. In the best whisky pubs across the Highlands and Islands you see glimpses of how it all started, of people, and communities coming together over the local drink, laughing and discussing, singing and enjoying. Layers upon layers.
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